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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey was published in 1962. The fifties and early sixties were a time of conformity versus rebellion in the United States. While the average breadwinner was returning to a suburban living room lit up with Father Knows Best, Allen Ginsberg was in Greenwich writing “Howl” to criticize the mechanization and conformity of modern society, Pollock was spattering a canvas with paint, Kinsey was redefining sexuality, and Kesey was publishing One Flew (“Voices against Conformity”). These themes of rebellion which marked the era are mirrored in Kesey’s novel, the story of an unnamed ward in a mental hospital and the patients who reside there. The ward is headed by Nurse Ratched, the head nurse, who rules the ward with fear and manipulation until Randal McMurphy, a man who feigns insanity to get out of the prison work camp, arrives to shake things up. McMurphy refuses to be subjugated by the system of manipulation by which the Nurse rules the ward. His aim to dethrone Nurse Ratched begin as a bet he makes among the men that he can “Bug her till she comes apart at those neat little seams,” within a week, but as the novel continues his carefree rebellion eventually evolves into a desperate battle to retain his free will and identity, a fight which he ultimately loses (Kesey 72). His spirit, however, will inspire the other patients to take control of their own lives, at least temporarily. The story is told through the eyes of one of the patients, a troubled half-Native American named Chief Bromden, who is witness to McMurphy’s struggle against the powers which are determined to control him. This novel mainly focuses on the effect of society on an individual’s free will and calls for a break from the social contract of our society, which punishes differences and infringes on our right to self-determination.
In order to be part of a civil society, each individual must give up some measure of self-determination. Without an implicit agreement that binds us as a people and sets rules for our governance and social behavior, there could only be anarchy, each person working solely for personal interest (Friend). This idea has been outlined most famously by two natural law theorists John Locke and Thomas Hobbes (D.). The two men believed in the “Social Contract” the idea that individuals enter into a voluntary and mutual agreement to create a society with the power to secure the protection of its people, however the two men interpreted it slightly differently (“Social Contract”). Locke believed that the individual gives up his right to obtain his own justice in return for the protection of his welfare and the security of a powerful and impartial justice system (D.). Hobbes, who was of the opinion that life was “Nasty, brutish, and short” thought an individual gave up all personal rights in exchange for only the protection of his life (D.). While both Locke and Hobbes are in agreement that a certain degree of self-determination must be relinquished to be part of a society, they disagree on whether the social contract can be broken. John Locke believed the social contract could and should be broken if people felt their basic rights were being infringed on, but Hobbes held that the individual had no rights and once entered into, the social contract could never be broken(D.). There are two social contracts functioning in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the first being the Lockian social contract of our society, which in addition to protecting and regulating the justice of its people also pressures them into conformity, shaming those who do not adhere to what it rules as socially acceptable. The second is that of the ward. The ward is separate from society and the rules are different. Nurse Ratched creates a Hobbesian social contract inside the ward which demands that the patients give up their free will in exchange for protection from the Outside World. In the ward, the patients have entered into a kind of social contract, in the style of Hobbes, with Nurse Ratched. They relinquish the entirety of their free will by staying in the ward, a society in and of itself, voluntarily allowing her to mistreat them in return for protection from the Outside World.
Each man has a reason to be in the ward: Chief Bromden is schizophrenic, Billy has a crippling stutter, and Sefelt is epileptic. Nurse Ratched says the men “are in [the ward] because [they] could not adjust to the rules of society” (Kesey 188), but in reality it was society that was unwilling to adjust to them; it found their “defects” unacceptable and tried to punish them for being different, beating them down with “the great voice of millions chanting, “Shame. Shame. Shame”’ (294). Billy tries to explain this to McMurphy, saying “Did you ever have people l-l-laughing at you? No, because you’re so big and tough! Well, I’m not big and tough. Neither is Harding. Neither is F-Fredrickson. Neither is Suh-Sefelt. Oh-oh, you-you t-talk like we stayed in here because we liked it!” (184). Divergent from the Hobbes theory of the social contract, the men are free to break the agreement, by leaving the ward, at any time, but as Billy said they do not have the guts to reenter the society that rejected them. The men use the ward as an asylum, if a hellish one, from the Outside World and the cruelty of the people who inhabit it. While they do not like the ward, or Nurse Ratched, they at least feel as if they belong there, among other rejects and misfits like themselves. They also allow themselves to be controlled by Nurse Ratched. While it is not enjoyable, they let her manipulate them primarily because it is better than the Outside World but also because they are lost, in a fog, like the Chief’s drug induced haze in which “You had a choice: you could either strain and look at things that appeared in front of you in the fog, painful as it might be, or you could relax and lose yourself” (125). The men do not know who they are or what they should do with their unsatisfying existences, and it is easier to forget themselves and completely surrender their free will than to break free of the fog and take responsibility for their lives (Martin).
Chief Bromden is one such patient, who has surrendered his free will to the point of feigning muteness. He is the initially passive witness to the happenings of the ward, narrating for us all he sees. Chief Bromden is the son of a Chinook chief and a white town girl. He takes after his father physically, tall as a horse and strong, but he takes his mother’s last name. These two conflicting identities, exacerbated by the horrors of war create an identity crisis which he cannot resolve (Ware). He sees the deterioration of his people’s way of life, at the hand of government officials. Society has rejected him more because he is half-native American than because he is schizophrenic, but instead of laughing at him like the other men, the Outside World ignores him, swept him under the table and tried to forget him. He recalls, “It wasn’t me that started acting deaf; it was people that first started acting like I was too dumb to hear or see or say anything at all,” (Kesey 198). While his muteness is symbolic of his powerlessness, he feels like he has no voice; it helps him in that it allows him to hear and see things which are hidden from others. He sees and narrates for us the hate of the orderlies and the system of fear and machine like precision with which Nurse Ratched runs the ward. A system which is interrupted by the arrival of McMurphy, who swaggers in, his hands big, shoulders broad, voice “Loud and full of hell,” (11). The Chief recognizes in McMurphy all the traits society has stolen from him; while the Chief feels small and keeps silent, McMurphy is big and loud. While the Chief is in constant hiding, McMurphy does not hide from anyone. During the Chief’s first encounter with McMurphy, Chief Bromden describes that when McMurphy shook his hand it felt “peculiar and went to swelling up out there on my stick of an arm, like he was transmitting his own blood into it. It rang with blood and power. It blowed up near as big as his, I remember,”(24). This foreshadows the strength McMurphy will invigorate the patients of the ward with, especially Chief Bromden who has the opportunity to become “big” again, but also how it will cost McMurphy dearly, the strength he transmits to the other patients comes directly from his own life source (Martin). By the end of the novel Chief Bromden’s strength is returned to him and he begins to speak again. He uses his new found power to smother the newly lobotomized McMurphy, saving his body and his legacy from any further corruption by Nurse Ratched.
Nurse Ratched can be mistaken for the force which creates all the men’s problems, but in fact she is subject to injustice from the same society which has injured them. She has been forced into an ill-fitting role by a society that does not view women as equal to men. In many ways she is, if not a victim, certainly a product of this environment. As a woman, she has no power in society, and must, at least outwardly, adhere to the position of a caretaker, society’s role for women. Her skills set however, which boasts master manipulation and subterfuge, is more suited to a CIA interrogator or politician than a healer. Because she has been deprived of any power in the Outside World, she demands it in the ward and preserves it by keeping the men down, exacerbating their feelings of shame and low self-worth instead of trying to help them. The men of the ward see Nurse Ratched as the ultimate antagonist. She seems so powerful to them as to control not only the men themselves but time, speeding it up or slowing it down as she pleases. Our narrator, however, recognizes “it’s the whole Combine, the nation-wide Combine that’s the really big force, and the nurse is just a high-ranking official for them” (Kesey 181). The Combine is what Chief Bromden call’s society’s initiative to make everyone uniform, he says it is something “you couldn’t whip… for good. All you could do was keep on whipping it, till you couldn’t come out any more and somebody else had to take your place” (303). McMurphy as well realizes Nurse Ratched is not all powerful, he says to the men “getting shut of her wouldn’t be getting shut of the real deep down hang up that’s causing the gripes,” (181). While he cannot pin point the real source of their problems, he recognizes it is not the nurse. She is just a hateful woman, and proves this point in his final act against her when he rips her uniform off, exposing her femininity which is seen as synonymous with weakness. While victory over a woman who has subjugated and belittled these men for years is a feat, it is outweighed by the grim realization that the men do not realize the Nurse is only a product of the injustice of their society, not the cause of all the injustice. They think the fight is over, and they won, they do not recognize the true nature or the magnitude of what they hope to be free of, and are therefore more vulnerable to it than ever.
Unlike the patients or Nurse Ratched, McMurphy is free of the deforming effects of society. He is a man who lives his life on the edge of society, enjoying its pleasures but refusing to comply with its rules. This is in part because he has no ties to society, he has “no wife wanting new linoleum. No relatives pulling at him with watery old eyes. No one to care about,” (Kesey 89). He can take care of himself so he doesn’t need society to protect him, and if there is any justice to be exacted, he would like to do it personally, therefore he has nothing to gain from upholding the rules of society (D.). A crucial part of the social contract is an agreement to follow common laws, these include the laws set up by the government of a society but also the social rules that a people agree upon, which outlines acceptable and unacceptable behavior (Friend). McMurphy disregards both of these, most notably by unapologetically sleeping with an underage girl; not only does this violate the social rule we have as a society which bars adults from having sex with children, but also infringes on the law set by our government which reinforces this belief. At the start of the novel, McMurphy defies the social contract not, as Locke would hope, to protect his human rights, but because he does not want to be constrained by society’s rules. When he is first admitted, McMurphy’s antics are only a continuation of this behavior, he is as unwilling to submit to the ward’s rules as he was to the Outside World’s, however, as the novel continues his behavior changes from a casual flouting of the rules for amusement and personal gain to a more desperate fight (Martin). McMurphy cannot understand this change, although he must certainly feel it, just as he cannot fully recognize the hopeless nature of his fight, but he continues, even when he has nothing to gain, even when the consequences are excessive and cruel because it is not in him to give up. He proves again and again that he is willing to suffer exorbitantly to retain his right to decide his fate, even if the only choices available are awful. It is unclear, however, whether this behavior can truly be considered an exercise in self-determination. Chief Bromden’s father told him, “If you do not watch it people will force you one way or the other into doing what they think you should do, or into just being mule-stubborn and doing the opposite just out of spite.” This belief suggests that McMurphy’s decision to do the opposite of what Nurse Ratched’s wants might not be an expression of his free will because it is still the Nurse who is controlling his actions (198).
In the end, Nurse Ratched succeeds in taking McMurphy’s free will but his influence survives him. After the illicit party and her involuntary undressing, Nurse Ratched has McMurphy lobotomized and leaves his empty body in the middle of the ward, like Achilles dragging Hector’s body around the walls of Troy. The men, however, refuse to believe it is him, claiming it is a fake and just another of the nurse’s tricks. The men thwart her every attempt to regain power, and Nurse Ratched is helpless to stop the fourteen men who are finally empowered to break the social contract of the ward and leave, taking control of their lives for the first time since they were committed. Even our narrator finds the strength he thought he had lost and rips the chrome panel from the floor of the tub-room, breaking a window and escaping into the night. However triumphant this may seem, it is not a full victory, if a victory at all. We do not know whether the men will continue to be the captains of their own lives or recede back into their roles as passive witnesses. Nurse Ratched was never the real problem, cruel as she was, she only had as much power as the men gave her. It was both the injustice of a society which convinced them they were worthless and more importantly their willingness to let someone else decide their fate that were the real problems. When they are back in the real world and subject once again to its pressures and rules there will be more forces which seek to control them than there were in the ward where there was only Nurse Ratched. On their return, their wives, their bosses, and the social rules of society will all serve to subjugate them. If they slip back into old habits and allow any of these forces to control them then the progress they made is lost and McMurphy’s sacrifice was for nothing. Maybe the new contract that they are signing is no better than the previous one, but they have the power to demand better, even break the contract, if their right to self-determination is not honored. Yet they must fight for that, and without McMurphy, it isn’t clear that they have the strength.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest society is vilified; authority and order take a heavy beating as well. However, I do not believe the novel is advocating for an upheaval of civilized society as a whole, only for removal of the injustice that is allowed to corrupt it (Barsness 29). McMurphy’s battle against Nurse Ratched is a reminder that although a binding agreement between people is necessary for a civilized society, and some portion of self-determination must be given up, each individual has an inalienable right to practice self-determination. This novel holds that the individual should never be so complacent or afraid as to dismantle a system which interferes with that inherent right, however impossible the task may seem. McMurphy knew he was fighting a losing battle, but he kept on. However futile it may seem, there is something to be said for fighting a fight you know you will lose, if only to prove to those watching that it is something worth fighting for. After McMurphy failed to lift the tub room panel, he said, “But I tried though… Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much” (Kesey 121). As the novel continues this statement builds in significance. The lifting of the panel comes to symbolize McMurphy’s fight; he puts his whole self into trying to lift it, when the other men aren’t even willing to try. While he is never able to lift it himself, McMurphy’s efforts eventually inspire the Chief to try and succeed to lift the panel and use it to break a window to his freedom. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest not only challenges society but also encourages the individual to fight like McMurphy did, not only for personal preservation but also to inspire others to fight for themselves. McMurphy understood that when he stood up, he was standing up for everyone (Angelou).
Angelou, Maya. “The Distinguished Annie Clark Tanner Lecture.” 16th-annual Families Alive Conference. Weber State Universit, Ogden. Iowa State University Archives of Women’s Political Communication. 2015 The Carrie Chapman Catt Center, n.d. Web. 19 May 2015. Barsness, John A. “Ken Kesey: The Hero in Modern Dress.” Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association 23.1 (1969): 27-33. JSTOR. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
D., James. “Locke versus Hobbes.” James’s Liberty file collection index. Ed. James D. James D., n.d. Web. 13 May 2015.
Friend, Celeste. “Social Contract Theory.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2015.
Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Penguin, 1962. Print.
Martin, Terence. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the High Cost of Living.” Modern Fiction Studies 19.1 (1973): 43-55. Bloom’s Literature. Web. 13 May 2015.
“Social Contract.” Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2015.
“Voices against Conformity.” U.S. History Pre-Columbian to the New Millenium. Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, n.d. Web. 19 May 2015.
Ware, Elaine. “The Vanishing American: Identity Crisis in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 13.3/4 (1986): 95-101. JSTOR. Web. 13 May 2015.
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